Denver Development

City Council Rejects Rezoning Proposal Opposed by West Colfax Jewish Community

Hermine Blau and her husband, who survived the Holocaust, have lived on Zenobia Street near the proposed rezoning for the last 46 years.
Hermine Blau and her husband, who survived the Holocaust, have lived on Zenobia Street near the proposed rezoning for the last 46 years. Conor McCormick-Cavanagh
Amid vocal opposition from Jewish residents who live near West Colfax Avenue, Denver City Council rejected a rezoning request that would have allowed for an apartment complex in a largely residential section of the neighborhood.

Council voted 11 to 2 against the rezoning on land abutting the southwest corner of Sloan's Lake Park. Councilwomen Kendra Black and Jamie Torres were the lone "yes" votes.

Residents in the surrounding area, many of whom are Orthodox Jews, argued at the meeting that traffic is bad and getting worse, there isn't anywhere to park, and that families aren't going to be able to afford buying a house in the neighborhood if single-family homes are knocked down and the land is sold to developers.

“Our community is not going to survive this. We are consistently seeing our community fall apart. Our young families are moving away. Young families that are seeking to move to our community don’t," said Aaron Steinberg, rabbi at the Zera Abraham synagogue in the neighborhood.

Councilwoman Amanda Sandoval, whose district includes the site of the proposed rezoning, agreed with Steinberg. "The Jewish community is suffering. It’s sad. I feel sad that all of you are being pushed out," Sandoval said.

Neighbors say smaller apartments aren't conducive to their way of life.

"For a long time, it’s really been a family type of neighborhood.... I’m part of the observant Jewish community on the west side, [and it] tends to have larger families as a whole," says Jeanne Abrams, a professor at the University of Denver who lives just a few blocks from the proposed rezoning. "Those apartments — not only are they not large enough, but all the new building has just jacked up the prices, and young couples wanting to buy a home really can’t."

The first Jews who moved to Denver were mostly from Germany and settled near the center of the frontier town founded in 1858. A second wave came in the 1880s, as Eastern European Jews, whom Abrams describes as "generally more traditionally Jewishly observant," settled along and near West Colfax. The Jewish community has been there ever since. Spiritual life centers around the Zera Abraham synagogue, and there are a number of Jewish schools.

But as development has spread into more residential parts of West Colfax, housing prices have gone up, forcing some residents out.

"We have lost a lot of people who had hoped to buy houses in our community and have gone to other areas of our town," says Abrams.

Despite the emotional testimony of residents, members of council who rejected the proposed rezoning did so based largely on safety concerns and questions about whether the category of the zoning request made sense. There aren't any sidewalks currently along the section of Sheridan Boulevard that was included in the rezoning request. "The safety implications of what we’re talking about here and the public welfare implications that we’re talking about here just don’t add up," said Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer.

“I’m not sure we have the right zone district," explained Councilwoman Robin Kniech, asking homeowners who wanted to sell their property as part of the rezoning to look at a new zoning classification that would better fit the area.

The rezoning application was filed by Bruce O'Donnell, president of Starboard Realty Group. While there was no specific development attached to the rezoning request, a future project likely would have included up to 100 apartment units.

Although O'Donnell and nearby residents didn't come to an agreement before the rezoning request went to council, Sandoval's predecessor, Rafael Espinoza, had been working for years with the two sides to come to a deal.

The original proposal requested rezoning for three blocks of Sheridan Boulevard, stretching from Colfax to 17th avenues. Espinoza says that the city was ready to buy the property just in front of these lots and build out sidewalks. Part of the development could have included apartment buildings, while some land could have been reserved for affordable townhouses. But the plan fell through.

"What happened then, ultimately, is that the big assemblage of different property owners broke down. The opportunity to get all the acquisition for the sidewalk disappeared," says Espinoza. "The number of concessions were too much for members of that group."

The city is beginning its planning initiative for west Denver, which includes the West Colfax neighborhood. The first meeting takes places on the morning of October 5 at Newlon Elementary School.

Update: This story has been corrected to note where German Jews first settled in Denver.
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Conor McCormick-Cavanagh is a staff writer at Westword, where he covers a range of beats, including local politics, immigration and homelessness. He previously worked as a journalist in Tunisia and loves to talk New York sports.